Patrick Buchanan, the president's master speech writer and keen-witted conservative, had a slightly pained expression on his face as he talked about arms sales to Iran.
The setting was a background briefing for members of the Heritage Foundation's President's Club. Membership is restricted to those who donate at least $1,000 to the foundation, renowned for its conservative and lately anyway, highly influential role in the nation's politics. I was present as a guest, enjoying the insights of some of the key members of the White House staff.Mr. Buchanan made no effort to conceal his unhappiness over the dilemma posed by the sale of arms to Iran, which clearly was shaping up as one of President Reagan's most unpopular actions in six years in office. Mr. Buchanan stoutly defended the President but also allowed that he was not consulted in advance.
Mr. Buchanan covered some of the points President Reagan was to make in the difficult press conference the following Wednesday. But I'm not sure his heart was in it.
It was clear from the questioning by the Heritage audience that even these rock-ribbed, right wing Republicans had misgivings about the Iranian arms debacle.
Just before Mr. Buchanan left the podium, I asked him if it was unthinkable to even consider the possibility of saying that perhaps a mistake had been made, that after all, nobody bats 1,000.
Mr. Buchanan looked me sharply in the eye pausing for several seconds before responding:
"You're asking if it is unthinkable to say we may have made a mistake." He paused again, then quipped:
"I don't know, we'll think about it."
With laughter filling the room, Mr. Buchanan strode out, a small triumph in a tough week.
I had accepted the invitation to Washington because I was interested to learn more about what the administration was preparing to do about the trade deficit.
Two weeks earlier, I attended an off-the-record background briefing at the State Department for 50 businessmen. I came away disappointed that there seemed no sense of urgency at State in dealing with the deficit problem. The State approach seemed passive and intellectual not action oriented and pragmatic.
Unfortunately, one sensed the attitude at the White House was not much different.
Beryl Sprinkel, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, said there was no possibility of a quick fix for the trade deficit. He said the recent monthly figures indicated we may have turned the corner but it was impossible to say to what extent.
"We believe free trade is good for the United States," he said, notwithstanding the fact that current policy is leading to a $170 billion trade deficit, the worst ever.
Mr. Sprinkel said the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers was improving for three reasons:
* The dollar devaluation, which he predicted would spread to other currencies (presumably to such countries as South Korea, Canada and Taiwan, which have significant trade advantages over the United States).
* Wage restraints in the United States.
* Rising productivity at U.S. factories.
Rather than put up trade barriers in this country, Mr. Sprinkel said the Reagan administration was pushing market opening ventures abroad.
This, of course, has been going on for many months, the results of which have yet to show up in the trade statistics.
Mr. Sprinkel indicated no certainty as to how much the deficit could be reduced in the next few weeks.
Significant further progress, he said, would depend on economic growth abroad (which the administration is encouraging) and a reduction of the federal budget deficit.
Whether all of this is enough seems doubtful.
I give the Reagan Administration extremely high marks for accomplishing much of what it has set out to do. But its attitude on trade has been seemingly almost fatalistic.
Under President Reagan, the United States has become a net debtor nation, now owing $200 billion overseas with another huge rise expected in 1987. The long term implications of this debt could adversely affect our standard of living, an assertion to which virtually all economists agree.
Unless the president starts moving with a vastly greater sense of urgency, the legacy of the trade deficit may cloud over two terms of achievement.
Don C. Becker is publisher of The Journal of Commerce